Court dismisses suit that sought to provide attorneys to CHINS children

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A lawsuit filed by 10 Hoosier children who argued Indiana should be required to provide legal counsel to youngsters involved in children in need of services proceedings was dismissed Tuesday in federal court. Attorneys who filed the case, however, indicated the matter is far from over.

Judge James Patrick Hanlon of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana dismissed the case, finding the plaintiffs had not shown why their federal constitutional challenges could not be raised under state jurisdiction in pending CHINS cases. Then he encouraged the plaintiffs to refile their lawsuit in state court.

“The better path — since Indiana courts are competent to adjudicate these federal constitutional claims — is to leave the integrated CHINS framework to the Indiana courts,” Hanlon wrote. “Plaintiffs should therefore raise their claim in state court and, if necessary, follow the state appellate process.”

Originally filed in February 2019, the case, Nichole K., et al. v. Terry Stigdon, director of the Indiana Department of Child Services, et al., 1:19-cv-01521, was dismissed without prejudice.

Kathleen DeLaney, counsel for the Plaintiffs, noted the court did not address the merits of the case.

“The federal court ruled on jurisdictional grounds that this case belongs in Indiana state court. We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision,” said DeLaney, attorney at DeLaney & DeLaney in Indianapolis. “There was no ruling on the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims that children in CHINS proceedings have a constitutional right to legal counsel.”

California-based Children’s Advocacy Institute filed the lawsuit, challenging the CHINS procedure. Specifically, the nonprofit asserted by not providing legal representation to children in CHINS proceedings, Indiana was violating the rights of abused and neglected children. However, Indiana countered that while such a requirement might be “flattering to an attorney’s sense of self-worth,” it would not provide any remedy to the children.

DeLaney said the dismissal will not end the litigation.

“The decision expressly allows plaintiffs to refile the case in Indiana state court.  We also have a right to appeal the decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals,” she said. “We are currently evaluating our options, but will continue the litigation one way or the other to ensure that the legal rights of Indiana’s children are protected.”

In dismissing the complaint, Hanlon applied the abstention doctrine from Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). This doctrine requires federal courts to abstain from deciding cases when the federal claims can be raised in state court and when federal relief would potentially interfere with state proceedings.

Hanlon ruled that continuing the case in federal court intrudes into the state’s quasi-criminal civil enforcement proceedings as well as into Indiana’s child-welfare framework.

The court brushed aside the plaintiffs’ argument that the state’s CHINS proceedings are not quasi-criminal because the parents cannot be incarcerated, put on probation or fined. Pointing to the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision in In re Ma.H., 134 N.E.3d 41, 44-46 (Ind. 2019), the federal court reiterated that the fundamental right of parents to raise their children is at stake in CHINS cases and that CHINS or termination of parent rights proceedings can implicate a parent in criminal activity.

Also in finding the federal courts should abstain from interfering in pending state child-welfare or child-custody proceedings, Hanlon again pointed to precedent that held the state must support the existing family relationship throughout the CHINS proceeding.

“The constitutional issue here — whether children in CHINS proceedings are entitled to counsel — is therefore one piece of a much larger and integrated child-welfare framework. The cost of a federal court’s interference in that state system ‘militate[s] in favor of abstention,” Hanlon wrote, citing Moore v Sims, 442 U.S. 415 (1979).

Finally, Hanlon ruled the plaintiffs had not identified any legal barrier that would prohibit them from raising their claims during CHINS proceedings in state court.

“In sum, Plaintiffs have not shown that they cannot raise their federal constitutional challenges in their pending CHINS cases,” Hanlon wrote. “Exercising federal jurisdiction over this case therefore presents the same danger as in (Kowalski v. Tesmer, 543 U.S. 125 (2004)): ‘unnecessary conflict between the federal and state courts’ and “confusion among [Indiana] judges attempting to implement … conflicting commands.’”

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